Suggested Trip

Birds, Marshes, and the Butterfly Effect: Paddling at Pohick Bay Regional Park

Due to an unsuccessful sunscreen search in a service station and the winding drive from D.C. to Lorton, Virginia, I felt nervous about this bird-watching/kayaking adventure at Pohick Regional Park. Nervous in that first-timer readiness to just get there kind of way. Even when we reached the park, I worried we’d never find the group until we caught our guide, David, at the park’s welcome center. Before we reached the marina, I found new things like tipping over our kayak to worry about.

My friend Luke and I joined the other kayakers by a kinked-out hose. We clipped into life jackets before David ran a quick tutorial: hold your arms in a “paddler’s box,” with hands grabbing the paddle in line with your shoulders; keep your paddle strokes close to the boat for the most efficient, straight path; reverse your oar blade to turn. I nodded and asked no questions, impatient to hit the water.

Luke and I shared a double kayak, and once we launched I felt a bit easier. Armed with water bottles and sunscreen we cut our oars into the glassy water and pushed forward, looking at the expansive, flat bay. As Luke and I caught pace with David, I almost forgot that this was a bird-watching tour, too focused on David’s kayak as a moving destination.

Soon, David stopped paddling. Our small group reached the edge of the marsh, where looming twenty-foot trees created a green-leafed wall. Looking at the shore of gigantic trees and bushes full of cobwebby caterpillar nests, I felt small, surrounded by the flat bay water, towering trees, and buzzing marsh insects.

As David explained his tour, someone in the group called out, “Is that a vulture over there?” My eyes searched and almost missed the large wingspan and pinkish head of a turkey vulture before it disappeared into the trees.

As David launched into a story about turkey vultures’ defensive projectile vomit – “my friend pretended to be dead once to scare them, and he confirmed that it’s indeed the most gruesome thing that ever happened to him” – someone else pointed to a second turkey vulture flapping into the thick woods.

A third person spotted egrets perched in tree branches, still as porcelain, and a different person identified a giant osprey nest tucked between grey, bare tree branches. Part of me had expected David to be an expert who could predict bald eagles’ and ospreys’ routines, but I soon realized that none of us, not even David, would be able to anticipate what we might see that day.

Staying near the leafy shore, we paddled through the marsh. The plants rooted in the murky bay sediment were probably no taller than three feet, but sitting close to water level, we couldn’t see above these green stalks. It was like a second, protective forest on the outskirts of the taller trees, as if we could pass through these water pathways unseen by the animals we came to watch.

As Luke stopped paddling to search the tall trees for more birds, I continued to dip my paddle in – right, left, right to catch up to the group. Luke jokingly tapped my paddle with his own, like a grandmother’s hand slap. “Just float,” he said.

After that, I kept my eyes open to the egrets and their oval wingspans. We floated close enough to beaver lodges to touch them (though we didn’t). Red-winged blackbirds surprised us by popping out of the marsh in a flash of red and black feathers. Butterflies flew around us, with yellow swallowtails on purple hibiscus flowers and monarchs on milkweeds.

“When we hear economy, we think of stock markets and global trading,” David said. “We think of human economy, but butterflies have economies, too. Every creature has its economy. What do we need to live? And we as humans need to consider not only human economies but each creature’s economy as well.”

Looking at all these butterflies, I also remembered the butterfly effect, a theory that suggests something as small as a butterfly wing can give rise to a distant tornado. Each action builds into something larger. When I focused on reaching the next destination that day, I ignored these tiny moments. With each oar stroke, I cut through algae film, brushed seaweed, or created miniscule whirlpools with a reverse stroke. Each paddle pushed me forward, but it also could unknowingly impact this environment’s economy.

Toward the end of our tour, David had us all stop and take one minute to listen to the marsh to think about this environment outside of us. Bullfrogs wailed, flies buzzed, birds trembled in calls to each other. I also heard our kayaks scraping against the shallow, rocky marsh bottom.

“I’m sure that you all noticed the bullfrogs and birds,” David said after our sixty seconds of silence. “But even in complete silence, you can still hear an airplane engine or a distant motorboat. We humans have influence over every environment we have, and we need to be more aware of it.”

Paddling back to shore, I paid attention to every stroke I stirred in the water. How lovely it was to start my day with this quietness, this attention to other living creatures. How wonderful that every movement, even the arm burning from paddling, meant something. What else had I missed in nature, in my life, by always looking forward and never looking around?

Pohick Bay taught me to look around, and will provide adventures and lessons to those who come to listen and observe.

The park offers a variety of paddles during the season; check for Pohick Bay paddling events here

Pohick Bay Regional Park

Pohick Bay is a water oriented park located on the Potomac River 25 miles south of the nation's capital. Pohick Bay offers canoes, kayaks, paddle boats and jon boats for rent on the weekends.

Chloe Cullen

As a recent college graduate, Chloe Cullen finished her five years at Penn State with undergraduate degrees in English and Broadcast Journalism as well as a creative writing masters. She currently lives in DC with her six siblings and English bulldog, Harper. 

August 15, 2019

Main image: Pohick Bay launch, Chloe Cullen photo
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